When my daughter, Jessie, was three she was terrified of tow trucks. That was my fault. I’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, we have to hurry, the tow truck’s gonna get our car.” She’d run ahead of me and reach up to grab the door handle, protecting the car from marauding tow trucks.
“As long as I’m here, no tow truck will take our car,” she seemed to say.
Imagine her delight when she spied a tow truck towing another tow truck. It felt like vindication to her.
I told that story for years until it became part of Jessie’s legend. She grew up and told it to her daughter Molly. Molly loved it so much she begged to hear it over and over, then she told it to her friend, Flynn, as if she’d seen it with her own eyes. Then Flynn told the story as if he’d been there. Now it’s legend and I’m sure one day Flynn’s grandson will say to his grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a tow truck towing another tow truck?” A story becomes a legend.
“I just re-read The Fire Next Time,” I told Jessie. “James Baldwin. What a beautiful writer he was.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve read everything he wrote. Plus, he said I was a cute baby.”
“Oh, I think that’s just one of your father’s stories,” I said.
She said to me, without anger, “Why would you take that away from me?”
Why indeed? I could have bitten my tongue.
“You know, now that I think of it,” I said, “James Baldwin did live on Horatio Street when we did, and I often saw him walking by. I’m sure he looked into your stroller and of course he would have said you were a beautiful baby.”
I have since checked with Arthur, who was there. He said, “Yes, it happened. I wouldn’t make that up.” So it’s true, and it’s Jessie’s story, her legend.
My mother was born on Long Island in May 1927, the week that Charles Lindbergh took off from nearby Roosevelt Field to make his historic flight across the Atlantic. My grandfather liked to say that as he drove his wife and new baby home from the hospital home he looked up, saw the plane, waved and said, “Good Luck, Lindy!”
Is that a true story? It’s a good one, full of hope for the future, the beginning of a heroic journey and a brand new life. Is craft involved? Did my grandfather conflate two separate events to make a compelling narrative? He wasn’t writing a newspaper account, he was creating a family myth. I believe in the absolute value of verifiable facts but I also believe in the value of a good story. I’m sorry he’s not here for me to ask.
Our stories make us who we are and they are ours to tell. Sometimes they’re absolutely true in the verifiable, fact-checking sense. And sometimes they’re true in the sense of legend and myth.
My father was a storyteller who often repeated himself and we teased him for it. One Christmas as we drove away from his house my son Sam, age ten, said,
‘I don’t know why you give PopPop such a hard time. I think his stories are great and I love them every time.”
Oft-repeated, well-loved stories make up our family lore. When they move into the next generation they bring back lost loved ones. Sam reminded us to be grateful for them.
Will you tell me your story?